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Engelke - Religion & the Media Turn (2010)

Engelke - Religion & the Media Turn (2010)

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MATTHEW ENGELKE London School of Economics

Religion and the media turn:
A review essay
Religion, Media, and the Public Sphere. Birgit Meyer and Annelies Moors, eds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006. vii + 325 pp., illustrations, index. Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture. David Morgan, ed. New York: Routledge, 2008. xv + 240 pp. Religion: Beyond a Concept. Hent de Vries, ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. xiv + 1006 pp., illustrations. All three volumes under review
MATTHEW ENGELKE London School of Economics

Religion and the media turn:
A review essay
Religion, Media, and the Public Sphere. Birgit Meyer and Annelies Moors, eds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006. vii + 325 pp., illustrations, index. Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture. David Morgan, ed. New York: Routledge, 2008. xv + 240 pp. Religion: Beyond a Concept. Hent de Vries, ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. xiv + 1006 pp., illustrations. All three volumes under review

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London School of Economics
Religion and the media turn:
A review essay
Religion, Media, and the Public Sphere.
Birgit Meyer 
eds.Bloomington:IndianaUniversityPress,2006. vii
325 pp., illustrations, index.
ed. New York: Routledge, 2008. xv 
240 pp.
Religion: Beyond a Concept.
Hent de Vries,
ed. Ne York: Fordham University Press, 2008. xiv 
1006 pp.,illustrations.
In this review essay, I consider three recent collections, one editedby anthropologists, one by an art historian, and one by aphilosopher, that reflect on what might be called “the media turn” inreligious studies. I situate these collections in relation to broadertrends and interests within anthropology, religious studies, andmedia studies, focusing in particular on the idea of religion asmediation, which involves, in part, a turn away from conceptions of belief and toward materiality and practice. [
religion, media,materiality, belief, the public sphere
he study of religion is undergoing what might beremembered in a generation’s time as “the mediaturn.” For one thing, this means that anthropolo-gists and others are focusing more than in the paston the social uses of media within religious life,even of such old media as printed texts and painted images(if more often radio, video and film, audiocassettes, the In-ternet,andotherofthenewerandnewestkinds).Thistrendis a good thing in itself; more importantly, however, thisnew work has, at its best, started a wholesale engagement with and evaluation of processes of mediation as schol-ars attempt to rethink how we should understand the very concept of “religion.” Within much of this work, religionis understood
mediation—a set of practices and ideasthatcannotbeunderstoodwithoutthemiddlegroundsthatsubstantiatethem.Suchaperspectivecreatessomeexciting opportunities, if also a few dangers. All three volumes under review here are noteworthy contributions to the media turn. Birgit Meyer and AnneliesMoors’s
Religion, Media, and the Public Sphere 
focuses at-tention on two of the most well-developed arguments toemerge thus far: first, that the version of secular moder-nity in which religion is considered private is untenable;and, second, that mass media and religion are not, con-comitantly, irreconcilable. Religion, in other words, is pub-lic, and religions have not been killed by television. Hentde Vries’s tome (that is the best word),
Religion: Beyond a Concept,
reminds readers that, among other things, using such terms as
without scare quotesand caveats, as I have just done, is either very naive or very brave. His particular insight—shared by several other au-thors in his collection and made possible by this idea of religion as mediation—is that it is perhaps both naive andbrave. David Morgan’s
Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture 
is evidence of an arrival of sorts, an indication of  just howimportantit hasalreadybecomeforscholarsofre-ligion to consider their subject in relation to its media andtheir materiality.
In constellation: The books
 With apologies to the individual authors—all 70 of them—I am not able here to touch on every chapter in any depth(there are 74). In the case of de Vries’s collection, this se-lectivity is made somewhat easier to justify by the fact thatnot all the chapters address the themes of media or medi-ation, although it is worth noting that the batch of essaysmost explicitly relevant (the eight in part 6: “Materiality,Mediatization, Experience”) are not the only ones to do so:Several essays located in other parts of the volume, includ-ing those by Jos´e Casanova, Jan Assmann, Charles Taylor, Veena Das, R´egis Debray, Willem B. Drees, Patricia Spyer,Talal Asad, Michael Warner, and Peter van der Veer addressmediation in one sense or another (via discussions of the
, Vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 371–379, ISSN 0094-0496, online ISSN 1548-1425.
2010 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1425.2010.01261.x 
American Ethnologist
Volume 37 Number 2 May 2010
public sphere, secularism, icons and iconography, politicalideologies, and pedagogy). Even so, it is important to givesomesenseofeachbookinandofitself,inpartbecausethethree are different kinds of books and so not commensu-rate at every level. It is also useful, I think, to say something about how—although they are quite different—these vol-umes connect in a behind-the-scenes way. The media turnis not exhaustively represented in these volumes, and yetamong them they not only include contributions by severalof the key scholars to have fostered it but they also providea glimpse of the social networks and institutional contextsthat have helped make it possible. Like other productiveturns and “moments” in the human sciences, this one is aresult, in part, of synergies and serendipities: the right peo-ple being in the right places and the right times.Meyer and Moors’s
Religion, Media, and the Public Sphere 
isthemostorthodoxandtypicalkindofeditedbook,inthesensethatitis(1)organizedaroundaparticularsetof themes; (2) framed by a theoretically engaged introductionthat situates the chapters in relation to existing literatures;and(3)filledinwithasetofempiricallygroundedcasestud-ies. Not all of the contributors are anthropologists—the ed-itors stress the merits of interdisciplinarity (p. 19)—and yetthis is the most anthropological of the collections overall.It is also the collection most obviously focused on mediain the mass-media sense: The authors look at film, tele-vision, video and cassette cultures, and the like. Building on the core points I note above, the authors here explorethree main issues in relation to the public sphere. In part1, Charles Hirschkind, Patricia Birman, Jeremy Stolow, andDavid Lehmann and Batia Siebzehner examine how differ-entmediatechnologies(oldandnew)cangiveshapetodis-tinct kinds of publics. In Egypt, for example, as Hirschkindshows here, complementing the analyses in his well-knownmonograph (Hirschkind 2006), the development of an Is-lamic counterpublic via cassette
(sermons meant toinspire greater piety) is made possible by both the materialand sensual properties of the medium (cassettes are small,easily reproduced, and easily circulated; sound is permeat-ing and plays mischief with the distinctions that a secularstate wants to make between public and private spaces).In part 2, Moors, Dorothea E. Schulz, Spyer, Rosalind I. J.Hackett, and Faye Ginsburg hone in on “public religion andthe politics of difference.” Hackett’s chapter, for instance,explains how minority religious groups in postapartheidSouth Africa have made claims to state-sponsored televi-sion time in the effort to ensure political survival and tocontrol their public images. Part 3, with essays by Walter Armbrust,Ays¸e¨Onc¨u,SudeepDasgupta,RachelDwyer,andMeyer shift the focus to how religious communities havecirculated and supported images of themselves throughpopularcultureandentertainmentindustries.AccordingtoDwyer, Hindu nationalists have actually not been able toshape the political meanings of religious identity in film—as they have in television (see Rajagopal 2001)—despite the worriesofIndiasmoresecularandcriticallymindedmiddleclasses. Reading the collection as a whole drives home notonly the points mentioned above (about religion’s refusal togo private and the ease with which many religious commu-nities have incorporated new media technologies) but also,in good anthropological fashion, that J¨urgen Habermas’sclassic formulation of the public sphere (even as amendedto factor in religion; see Habermas 2006) cannot be trans-ported easily outside of the West. “The point here,” writeMeyer and Moors in their introduction, “is not to employ the notion of the public sphere as a universal notion butrathertouseitasastartingpointinordertodevelopamoresuitable framework for an analysis of the complicated poli-tics of identity in the information age” (p. 4).Morgan’s
Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture 
isorthodox as well, although in a minor tradition—that pio-neered by Raymond Williams (1976) of unpacking impor-tant terms. As Morgan ruefully notes, however, whereas Williams was himself able to cover all the key words heselected for consideration, his own collection is a col-laborative effort, bringing together 16 scholars in art his-tory, the history of religions, religious studies, anthropol-ogy, sociology, literature, theology, journalism, and mediastudies. The list of 15 key words chosen for comment “cap-tures much of the energy and focus” of recent interdis-ciplinary work, according to Morgan (p. 14), although noclaims are made about the list being exhaustive or defini-tive. His introduction is very good at charting the emer-gence of this work (much of it, even outside the anthropo-logical constituency, indebted to Clifford Geertz and VictorTurner). The introduction also includes Morgan’s encapsu-lation of how to understand the work on religion as media-tion, which “has not defined religion as a discrete and uni-versal essence but has regarded religion as fundamentally mediated, as a form of mediation that does not isolate be-liefbutexaminesitsarticulationwithin
. . .
socialprocesses(p. 8). It is with such regard in mind that Morgan has gath-ered essays by Meyer and Jojada Verrips on “aesthetics,”Stewart M. Hoover on “audiences,” Johanna Sumiala oncirculation,”J.KwabenaAsamoah-Gyaduoncommunity,” Angela Zito on culture,” David Chidester on “economy,”himself (Morgan’s own chapter) on “image,” Peter Hors-field on “media,” Jolyon Mitchell on “narrative,” PamelaE. Klassen on “practice,” Joyce Smith on “public,” SarahM. Pike on “religion,” Schultz on “soundscape,” Stolow on“technology,” and Isabel Hofmeyr on “text.” The authorstackle their charges in a variety of ways: Some work fromtheir own research material (or that of others) to illuminategeneral issues; some provide more theoretical overviews of concepts driven by the chronologies and concerns of intel-lectual history. All of the chapters are clearly written andsuitable for students; teachers and other professionals willfind most of them engaging too.
Review essay
American Ethnologist
De Vries’s
Religion: Beyond a Concept 
is not orthodox in any way, shape, or form. Certainly not shape or form: Atover 1,000 pages and also larger than average dimensions(7 1/8 by 9 1/4 inches), it is the kind of book that has to begivenaspaceonyourdeskandonlymovedoffwhenyouaresure you will not need to pull it down from the shelf againany time soon, lest it slip from your hands and cause injury (an interesting comment, perhaps, on the materiality of re-ligion). This book is a big deal, an event in object form. In-deed, you almost feel as if, when you first open it, trumpetsshouldblare.FordhamUniversityPresshascertainlysparedno expense in its production (much to its credit), so you al-most feel cheated by the silence, as if a soundtrack really should have been included. If I am being somewhat flip-pant, it is only to underscore the importance of this book as a physical object in and of itself.It is not so easy to be flippant about the contents. A handful of the 43 essays will be widely influential, and part6,towhichIreferabove,is,indeVriessownwords(andper-haps to the chagrin of the contributors to other parts), “anespeciallyrichset ofessays” (p. xiv). Theimportanceofma-teriality for understanding the idea of mediation is drivenhome in the first chapter of part 6 (reprinted from
), by Tomoko Masuzawa,on fetishism, which ends with a compelling discussionabout the necessary and nonfigurative link between Victo-rianunderstandingsoftheAfricanprimitiveand“theevery-day mystery of modern economy” (p. 667). This chapter isfollowed by a pair of essays (the first by Stolow, the secondby Stef Aupers, Dick Houtman, and Peter Pels) on the re-lationships between religion and technology, one of which(Stolow’s) pushes for a definition of religion as something  within “the indeterminate spaces of exchange between hu-mans and their machines” (p. 686). Next comes Meyer’s al-ready influential 2006 inaugural address after joining thefaculty of the Free University of Amsterdam, in which shesets out her idea of “religious sensations” and a turn toaesthetics (see also Meyer 2009). Zito’s analysis of televi-sion and religion in the United States offers reflections on“‘mediation’ in the deep theoretical sense of the term” (p.724; more on this below). Niklaus Largier, in a rather dif-ferent register from the essays already mentioned, offersa close reading of Robert Musil’s fiction vis-`a-vis his en-gagement with the German mystic Eckhart von Hochheim.Extending this focus on the finer arts, Sander van Maas’schapter looks at how a small group of composers in the1990s stirred controversy by producing new religious artmusic (“Holy Minimalism”) much in favor with audiencesbut not most critics, and Alena Alexandrova draws atten-tion to the “opaque residue” (p. 772) of religious concerns(with truth, with iconoclasm) present in so-called secularart.In terms of content and form, it is also worth men-tioning that several essays in de Vries’s volume, for in-stance, Masuzawa’s, have been published elsewhere, mak-ing 
a reasonable word to describe it. What ismore, although de Vries’s chapter is called “Introduction,”at 110 pages (including the 319 endnotes) and no mentionof or framing of the chapters that follow (what little he doessay about them is kept to the preface), it is perhaps bet-ter seen as a prolegomenon to any future “future of the re-ligious past” (see below). De Vries’s chapter and his other work in the philosophy of religion (especially de Vries 2001)are worthy of a review essay in themselves, although hereI can do no more than acknowledge that fact and high-light the extent to which his work has set the terms for un-derstanding mediation in the current turn (but see Stolow 2005).Turning now briefly to scene setting for this trio of vol-umes, I can say with no exaggeration that the media turn would be much less interesting were it not for the generos-ity of the Dutch state. De Vries’s collection is the first of five scheduled books based on an international researchprogram called “The Future of the Religious Past,” fundedby the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research(NWO).Inadditiontothebooks,thisprogramissponsoring 13researchprojectsandyearlyconferences,whichbeganin2002andwillcontinuethrough2011(andsomepapersfrom which are or will be included in the publications). Meyerand Moors’s edited volume is also the result of a conferencesponsored in part by the NWO, along with the AmsterdamSchool for Social Science Research and (the erstwhile, butformerlyLeiden-based)InternationalInstitutefortheStudof Islam in the Modern World. De Vries, Meyer, and Moorsall hold chairs in universities in Amsterdam, and several of the contributors to the volumes under review either holdpositions in the Netherlands, used to hold positions in theNetherlands, or have spent time in the Netherlands as visit-ingfellows,researchers,orfrequentguests—includingMor-gan, who, with Meyer, Horsfield, and Hoover, has been run-ning a series of “Media Religion Culture Global Seminars”coordinated by Meyer out of the University of Amsterdamand VU University Amsterdam. Meyer and Morgan are alsohalf of the editorial quartet that runs the journal
Material Religion 
(launched in 2005), in which many of the articlesfocus on media and mediation. The ferment is the productofmorethantheseDutchelementsandfundingstreams,tobe sure, and, when you account for, say, New York Univer-sity’s Center for Religion and Media (especially in conjunc-tion with its advisory board and the university’s anthropol-ogydepartment),alongwiththeCenterforReligion,Media,and Culture at the University of Colorado at Boulder (es-pecially in relation to the biennial Conference on Religion,Media, and Culture, which is spearheaded by Hoover, thecenter’s director), you begin to get a good sense of the par-ticular admixture bubbling away. Although there is, then, some justification for speak-ing of the media turners (if you will) in terms of collegial

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